St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, contains a particularly poignant memorial to a Scottish regiment which suffered heavy loss of life in India. There is nothing particularly surprising about that; except all the losses, in this case, were from disease; an outbreak of cholera at Sukkur, some 230 miles up the Indus from Karachi in Sindh Province of modern-day Pakistan.

The memorial in Edinburgh. Click on image to enlarge it.

The 78th (the Ross-shire Buffs) with some other regiments were summoned urgently from Britain as the news of the disasters in Afghanistan reached London in 1842. On arrival in India they were sent to the newly coveted province of Sindh and ordered to march up the banks of the Indus to the small town of Sukkur. Although they arrived in good health, illness soon overtook them. According to Captain Keogh of the regiment, “a most virulent fever broke out, which continued, without cessation, throughout the stay of the regiment. Some lingered for weeks, some for days. It was not infrequent to hear of the death of a man to whom one had spoken but half an hour previously. The hospital, a large one, was of course filled at once; some of the barrack-rooms were converted into wards, and at one time there were upwards of 800 men under treatment.”

It was decided to send the survivors downriver to Hyderabad and it proved to be a ghastly journey. Keogh continues; “at last, on the 21st and 25th of December 1844, we embarked, or rather the men crawled, on board common country boats, which conveyed us to Hyderabad. The sun struck through the thatching by day, and the very heavy dews penetrated it by night, when it was extremely cold... When we moored in the evening we used to bury our dead, and I sewed up many of the poor fellows in their blankets and rugs, the only substitutes for a coffin we had. We dug the graves deep, and with the bodies buried the boxes and everything else that had belonged to them. We put layers of thorns inside, round, and on the top of the graves, in hopes of preserving the remains of our poor comrades from the attacks of the troops of jackals swarming in the neighbourhood.”

The analysis of the reasons for the disaster show how little was known about the cause of the disease. It was at first thought to be malaria. A regimental history observed that; “The regiment marched into Sukkur apparently in excellent health, but disease must have been contracted on the way up, when passing through swampy tracts where the heat of the sun had engendered malaria. The excitement of the march kept the scourge from showing itself...[however]...the medical men attributed the sickness in a great degree to the improper time at which the regiment was moved, and the malaria engendered by the heat of the sun on the swampy plains which had been overflowed by the Indus.”

Allen’s Indian Mail and Register of Intelligence commented that “Dr Kirk of the Bengal Service who bestowed great attention on the subject attributed the sickness to exhalations from the limestone rocks on which the barracks were built... It may also be that this and other epidemics which prevail at irregular periods in Sindh arise from exhalations produced by volcanic action; for the country, although alluvial, is subject to sudden and extensive changes from earthquakes... The habit of officers and soldiers in India is to drink copiously of beer wine and brandy... The soldiers’ ration is a vile potation, falsely supposed to be distilled from rice but really obtained from other substances chiefly from a liquor procured by incising the date tree. ... This general use of strong drinks does not produce the pestilence, it predisposes the constitution to receive infection and always renders it more fatal.” (p 588)

The Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal got closer to the truth. They attributed the deaths to remittent fever, bowel complaints, acute and chronic dysentery and diarrhoea.(p 17). In fact almost all the deaths were due to cholera, the causes of which were little understood at the time. It was not until The Broad Street cholera outbreak in the Soho district of London in 1854 (a mere 10 years too late for the 78th) that the physician John Snow produced his study and iconic map of the outbreak which conclusively linked the disease to contaminated water. And it was not until 1897 that Ronald Ross, a British army surgeon working in India proved that malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes. Until then the idea that disease was spread by a miasma of bad vapours (or “mal aria”) held sway.

Not surprisingly the casualties to the 78th were on a scale which caused serious discontent. The suggestion that the problem had been exacerbated by excessive drinking and intemperance led the 78th to accuse General Napier of having obliged the regiment to march to Sukkur too late in the year, at the start of the hot season.

The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany reported,

With reference to the exaggerated and unjust statements respecting this unfortunate regiment, a letter has appeared in a London newspaper (The Times March 24th 1845) from Sir William Napier vindicating his brother from the imputation cast upon him of being “the murderer” of the soldiers and showing that due precautions had been taken by him to secure... the 78th Regiment which was ordered up the river from Karachi to Sukkur... Although the 78th arrived at Sukkur in excellent health... the disease burst out suddenly with unusual violence and enraged till the end of the year “the sickness” he adds “has astounded the medical men who call it an extraordinary epidemic for which they cannot account, this then furnishes further evidence of the fatal as well as the deceitful character of the Sindh climate especially to Europeans. . . . We understand that the officers, NCOs and privates of HM 78th Highlanders have subscribed upwards of 1000 rupees or 100 pounds for the purpose of erecting a monument in one of the public churches of Edinburgh to the memory of their comrades who died in Sindh... This cenotaph will be raised to commemorate the victims of the noisome pestilence, the unhappy beings whose deaths at Sukkur put the last sad seal to the iniquity of the Sindh invasion.” (p 561)

The regiment commissioned one of the most eminent sculptors in Scotland. John Steell (later Sir John) was sculptor to Queen Victoria and had already fulfilled a number of high profile commissions including statues of Sir Walter Scott and Queen Victoria and two busts of the Duke of Wellington. The 78th memorial took him into a different genre and one which he would repeat with comparable success for the 93rd Highlanders memorial in Glasgow Cathedral for their losses in the Crimean War.

Related material

Further reading

Allen’s Indian Mail and Register of Intelligence London Saturday January 4th 1845.

Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany November 1844 to April 1845 Vol 4 Third Series, published London William H Allen 1845. .

Ewart, General Sir John. History of the ...Highland Regiments. London, William Mackenzie, Undated.

Keogh, Captain. Journal of Captain Keogh late 78th Regiment. Unpublished but quoted in Ewart above.

Napier, Sir William. The History of General Sir Charles Napier’s Administration of Scinde. London: Chapman and Hall, 1851.

Ross, Sir Ronald. The prevention of malaria. London. Dutton, 1910.

Snow, John. On the mode of communication of cholera. London; Wilson and Ogilvy, 1849.

The Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal. Volume 76. 1st July 1851 published by Adam and Charles Black, Edinburgh 1851.

Created 8 March 2015